Category Archives: France

• Paris, Banks of the Seine

Visit: 20th June 2017

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This was not my first time to Paris, but it was the first time I have visited in the Age of the iPhone, meaning I now have photographs of it that I won’t lose track of. I have been to the city’s historic centre on three occasions, so I feel comfortable counting it as visited despite the most recent trip being for less than two hours. I went to Paris for primarily to attend the biannual air show in order to research an investment idea. There were some exciting displays such as an F-35 fighter doing aerobatics, but most of my day was spent in the conference halls talking to people about structural components.

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At Le Bourget airfield it was extremely crowded and extremely hot, so when I finally escaped the crowds after the show was over it was a breath of fresh air to have some down time by the banks of the Seine. This was my first time using mobile data abroad – since the hated EU have recently banned phone companies from charging their extortionate roaming fees – and it was extremely useful to be able to navigate around using Google Maps.

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This World Heritage Site covers an area around the Seine as it runs through central Paris – stretching from the Eiffel Tower in the west to Notre Dame in the east. I opted for the eastern end, heading first to the facade of Paris’s famous cathedral, above. This Gothic masterpiece feels similar to the cathedral in Amiens, particularly because of the huge number of figures depicted in miniature statues above the front doorways.

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Two natural islands sit within the Seine – Île de la Cité, on which stands Notre Dame (above) and Île Saint-Louis, where the top photograph was taken.

There has been a settlement in Paris since prehistoric times, but it was during the 17th to 20th centuries that it really developed into what it is today. The wide avenues and carefully laid-out street patterns were the result of deliberate planning by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. This was to be the model for a number of New World cities, particularly in Latin America. I noticed that Parisian feeling for sure in Buenos Aires, which is the only major Latin American city I have visited.

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Since the great ‘renovation of Paris’ the city government has enforced regulation to protect dozens of specified views throughout the city. Like London’s protection of the view of St Paul’s from various angles, this means no new buildings may be constructed that spoil parts of the urban vista. The developers of the skyscraper district La Défense, however, got around the protection of the view of the Arch de Triomphe from the Place de la Concorde by building outside city limits, but going taller than any Victorian-era planner had ever envisaged.

These photos of/from the Eiffel Tower are Natalie’s from her visit this January. I went up the tower years ago and enjoyed the view. From up here you can really appreciate Haussmann’s layout of the streets and also the sheer size of the city.

I have not yet been to either Paris’s main art galleries – the Louvre and the Orsay – or the WHS-inscribed Palace of Versailles – so a proper revisit is definitely on the cards.

• Belfries of Belgium and France

Visits:

29th March 2008, 5th July 2009, 21st September 2014,

17th April 2016, 8th/9th October 2016

This expansive World Heritage Site consists of no fewer than 55 bell towers spread across Belgium and northeastern France. As well as being fine examples of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the belfries represent the emergence of local government as a force to be taken seriously in Europe. In most towns the tallest buildings were traditionally the church’s spire and the manor of the local feudal baron. As burghers and aldermen grew in stature from the 11th to the 17th centuries, belfries (often co-located with town halls) began to challenge the dominance of the other two institutions.

The WHS known as ‘Belfries of Belgium and France’ can be found in villages, towns and cities alike. They range in height from perhaps 100 feet to three times that.

I have held off from writing about the belfries for a while, but, having now ticked off eight of them on four separate trips it seems acceptable to do so.

Bruges

29th March 2008 & 5th July 2009

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Bruges’s belfry is 272 feet tall and is one of the most prominent on the list. It sits within the separately inscribed World Heritage Site city of Bruges which I went to in both 2008 and 2009. But it is most famous in Britain, perhaps, as a key filming location in the film In Bruges. If you recall, the climactic final scene is set in the belfry. I climbed it on both occasions I visited the city.

Ghent

21st September 2014

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Back in 2014 Natalie and I met up with my friend (who was then living in nearby Luxembourg) and his friends for a weekend in Ghent. My primary motivation for suggesting the city was to see Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, but it was handy that there was also a major belfry in the city. I think this one is more attractive than Bruges’s, and it is also the tallest belfry in Belgium, at around 300 feet.

Amiens

17th April 2016

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This one feels like a bit of a fudge because you have to squint to see the belfry in the picture above. It was in Amiens, which a group of friends and I drove to and spent a weekend in primarily to visit the ornate cathedral. I insisted we get closer to the belfry but was stymied by a faulty satnav, so we ended up never getting a good look at it.

Arras

17th April 2016

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On the way back from Amiens as we headed toward Calais and the Chunnel home we stopped for lunch in Arras. This belfry and town hall is located on the town’s main square, which is a pretty spot to spend some time. It is also home to one of the ‘Fortifications of Vauban’, a WHS consisting of various 17th century accomplishments of French military engineering.

Béthune

17th April 2016

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After Arras we stopped again in the small French town of Béthune. We drank a coffee in its square, which was less picturesque than Arras but still quite pleasant. This belfry is not nearly as ornate as the others I’ve described so far, but it has its own defiant character that I quite like. I should think this is one of the oldest belfries; it says on Wikipedia that a belfry has stood on this spot since 1346.

Antwerp Cathedral

8th October 2016

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In the mould of the Amiens visit we undertook a similar road trip in October 2016 to Antwerp. This Belgian city was one of the world’s most affluent in the Middle Ages, and it has a cathedral to match. We stayed in a hotel right next door to the belfry, but didn’t get a chance to walk up it because there was a service on when we attempted to visit.

Antwerp Town Hall

9th October 2016

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Antwerp actually has two belfries inscribed on the list. The second is this magnificent town hall, which is draped in flags. The belfry itself makes no attempt to soar as high as its counterpart at the cathedral, but fits nicely with the rest of the building.

Dendermonde

9th October 2016

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Dendermonde is a small Belgian town at the beginning of the Scheldt river (which flows onwards to Antwerp). We stopped off here on our way home, and were glad to have done so. This town hall was open to the public and free to enter, so we had a look around at its collection of paintings and the council chamber. The yellow flag with the black lion is the flag of Flanders.

• Amiens Cathedral

Visit: 16th April 2016

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Amiens is a city in the French region of Picardy with a history going back to Roman times. But it is the 13th century cathedral that makes it famous today.

Amiens was chosen as the destination for a “lad’s trip” featuring my pals Ross, Chig and Nowell. Ross had recently passed his driving test so was keen to make use of his new skills by driving us to the near Continent for a weekend.

The area close to the Eurotunnel’s southern end is rich in World Heritage Sites. Options included the city of Bruges in Belgium (destination of our first ever lad’s trip back in 2009, when I was driver). There are the 56 Belfries of of Belgium and France, or even the 108 component parts of the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin.

Seeing mounds of slag or individual bell-towers wasn’t quite enough to excite us, though, so the city of Amiens was chosen as our primary port of call.

Nowell and I – who live in Bristol – took the train over to Ashford in Kent, where we linked up with Ross and Chig who had driven down the M20 from London. It was Friday night and the rush hour was over as we headed towards Folkestone to board the cross-Channel train.

We cracked open a celebratory beer as we passed beneath the chalk and marl of the seabed. It was a smooth exit from the tunnel, and, after one false start, we were hurtling down the A16 towards Amiens.

Ross had booked us a hotel rather farther from the city centre than was ideal, but we soon found our way in and spent the first night in the city’s historic centre, drinking by the attractive Somme riverside.

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The next day gave us a chance to do some sightseeing. The cathedral was built in the thirteenth century and is one of the best examples of the High Gothic style in existence.

There are quite a few Gothic cathedrals on the UNESCO list, which some people believe makes them overrepresented. I haven’t yet seen enough to have developed ‘Gothic fatigue’, so I was able to enjoy this one and compare it to Cologne Cathedral, which I had been to twice in 2015.

Amiens is cleaner, probably because it sits in a much smaller – and less polluted – city than Cologne. Its façade is its strongest point, being festooned with statuary.

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The façade is sometimes referred  to as “the stone encyclopaedia of the Bible” for its sheer number of figures from the holy book.

It was notable in its construction for its early use of ‘outsourcing’: instead of having all of the sculptors come to do their work at the cathedral itself, the authorities commissioned the statues to be made at workshops off-site and then brought over and affixed to the cathedral when ready.

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This made construction more efficient. The overall efficiency of its builders meant that it was put up in a remarkably short space of time: just 68 years.

In the timescales normally applicable to cathedrals built in the medieval era, this was extremely fast. It meant that the cathedral’s style is unusually consistent, since architectural tastes and techniques did not have much time  to evolve during the building of Amiens, so it represents its era especially well.

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Inside is apparently a relic that is said to be the head of John the Baptist. I did have a good look for it but was unable to find it.

The ceiling is 42 metres high, leaving a cavernous space into which sunlight streams.

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Having finished at the cathedral we exited through the gift shop and I caught the only glimpse of Amiens’ belfry that I was going to get, as the others insisted on going straight for lunch. The afternoon and the evening soon disappeared and before long it was Sunday morning and we were heading off in the car again, driving north toward Calais. We stopped for a while in the town of Arras, where we lunched by the inscribed belfry before having a brief look around one of the Fortifications of Vauban (Louis XIV’s military architect). Thereafter we continued on to Béthune, a small town with another belfry worth ticking off. By this time all of us but Nowell had, one by one, given up on the beers and were drinking sparkling water – but he managed to keep the flag flying to the bitter end.

• Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley

Visit: 16th June 2013

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By Tom

There were two reasons I flew down to France that weekend – one was to see the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, and the other was for these caves. The Vézère Valley, particularly around the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, is home to dozens of ancient caves that have been found to contain prehistoric artwork etched into or painted onto the walls. Cave art was something none of us had seen before, so we decided in between Bergerac and Limoges to spend a day looking around the Vézère.

There are 16 caves recognised as part of this WHS, and we only went in one of them. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the prehistoric caves, so I can only post other people’s pics. It’s a bit odd that you can’t take photos – the reason they gave is that the flash degrades the artwork, but our guide was using a torch the whole time, which I thought must do a lot more damage than a microsecond of camera flash.

Anyway, firstly we visited a different cave that is not a part of the WHS, called Les grottes du Roc de Cazelle. This is really more of a museum cave, and was created in the Middle Ages (only a pathetic 1,000 years ago!). Here you can see a lookout opening in the cave, and lots of holes in the rock. Wooden beams used to be (and in some parts still are) stuck into the holes, and a walkway laid across them. 

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The last people to dwell in these caves moved out in 1966!

You can just turn up and walk right into the museum caves here (for a fee of course). To visit an actual prehistoric cave is slightly more difficult. You can’t just wander around these caves on your own – you must book a guided tour. The French haven’t yet developed the concept of an advance booking system, so you must show up on the day and reserve a place on a tour. The most popular caves fill fill up fast, so you get people queuing up at 9am for the 60 or so places that are available on each day. If you are not at the front of the queue and thus able to bag an early tour, you must wait around for several hours until your time comes. This is not too much of an ordeal though, as the surrounding towns and villages are very charming, and indeed very filling (if you’re an animal hater who loves fois grax!).

We went to the cave at Les Combarelles, which is not the most competitive to get into – we only had to kick our heels for an hour or so. The weather was amazing on that day – hitting 31°C in the afternoon. To go into the cave was to experience a different climate, at once cool and damp.

The cave was long, narrow and winding. It did not open up into caverns at any point, but just kept snaking on into the rock. Along the way our guide would stop and shine a light on what looked like random etchings on the walls. To me at least, it often felt comparable to looking at constellations, where somebody tells you this is a bear and that is a wolf but really they could be just about anything! But others were very easy to make out, and there is no doubt that these 12-14,000 year old engravings were made by people with some artistic skill.

The picture below doesn’t really look anything like what those on the rock did, but they show what you could make out if you looked hard enough. I do remember seeing the horse.

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The tour is about an hour, and getting back out into the sunlight is a welcome change from the dank environment of a cave.

There are quite a few WHSs that are caves. The list contains:

Mogao Caves, China
Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst, Hungary/Slovakia
Ajanta Caves, India
Ellora Caves, India
Elephanta Caves, India
Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves, Israel
Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico
Škocjan Caves, Slovenia
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
Mammoth Cave National Park, USA
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, USA

• Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France

Visit: 15th – 18th June 2013, 20th June 2017

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The Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France – or, as it is known in English, The Way of St James – is a vast WHS made up of 69 different individual sites scattered all the way across France. The Way of St James has actually been broken down into three different WHSs: in addition to this one, there is an equivalent route inscription in Spain as well as the city of Santiago de Compostela itself. The Way of St James was in medieval times one of the three major pilgrimage routes in Christianity, alongside the Via Francigena (from Canterbury to Rome) and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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The sites inscribed in this WHS are generally churches and monasteries that were used as waypoints and stop-offs for pilgrims. It’s a bit unreasonable to have to visit all 69 in order to tick this WHS off, so I am writing this after having seen a representative few. Over time I am sure I will visit more and I will append descriptions to this post. There are 7 other WHSs that are inscribed in their own right, but are also components of this WHS – such as Amiens Cathedral and Mont St Michel.


15th-18th June 2013 – Dordogne

My parents were on a two week break in France, driving their new van – a converted VW T5 – and staying in campsites and Aires along the way. I found some Ryanair flights for about £50 return and got myself down to the Dordogne for 4 days. There isn’t room for three in the van, so here is my accommodation!

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I flew from Bristol to Bergerac on the Saturday, arriving to sunny weather in some contrast to the rain back home. We got straight on the road and headed to Saint-Avit-Sénieur – a tiny village that is home to an 11th Century church. Here is one of the outbuildings.

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This is a view inside the ruins of the abbey. It was still in use, with some locals playing boules and kids having a mini disco!

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That same evening we drove on to nearby Cadouin, where there is an abbey dating back to 1115.

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Here you can see the abbey through the one remaining original town gate.

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I bought an avocado and some tomatoes from the first of an almost infinite amount of shops that specialise in foix gras down there. Every restaurant we went to seemed to have its menu comprising of at least 2/3rds foix gras-related dishes. I didn’t eat any, but I did have duck meat for dinner on each of the three nights we ate out.

Sunday we went to see the cave art of the Vézère valley, which I’m going to cover in the next post. On Monday we drove an hour or so north to Périgueux – the capital of the Dordogne – to see the third church of the trip. Well, this one is actually a cathedral:

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The Cathédral St-Front, as it is known, is striking. But it is not to everyone’s taste, as our guidebook made clear:

Unfortunately, it’s no elegance, having suffered from the zealous attentions of the purist nineteenth-century restorer Abadie, well known for the white elephant of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris. The result is too white, too new, too regular, and the roof is spiked around with ill-proportioned nipple-like projections serving no distinct purpose; “a great example of how not to restore”, Freda White tartly featured in her classic travelogue, Three Rivers of France.

Nevertheless, it is a grand building, and ornately detailed inside. To be honest, a lot of the Christian imagery is wasted on me at the moment, but I’ve ordered a DVD “The History of Christianity” so I can better understand the meaning of the artifacts, paintings and architecture of the churches I visit.

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After Périgueux we headed northwards again, and happened upon a wonderful medieval town called Brantôme. It had been raining heavily, but when we arrived in Brantôme it had stopped and the moisture was heavy in the air. The town is surrounded by waterworks and cliffs abut the town’s old abbey (not a part of the WHS, but founded in 769 by Charlemagne himself according to legend).

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We had a delicious meal that evening in Brantôme, and my Dad shook the hand of the chef, such was his enjoyment of it.

On the final day of my trip we drove the two hours or so north-east toward Limoges. To the east of Limoges is a town on a hill called Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, where the eponymous church is named for a 6th Century saint known for freeing prisoners.

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The Church is definitely the focal point of this town. Its architecture is described as ‘Romanesque’. You can see below the high roof and the light that comes pouring in.

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It was outside this church that we photographed the symbol you can see at the top of this post. This is the symbol that pilgrims used to recognise a place that would welcome them on their way to Spain. And here is a map of the four churches we visited on this WHS (I will update as I visit more).

Sites on SdC in France visited

And after this, it was time for me to head to the airport for my flight back from Limoges.

Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.


20th June 2017 – Paris

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Four years passed before I visited another point on this WHS. On a flying visit to Paris in June 2017 I walked from Châtelet – Les Halles to the Île de la Cité via the Saint-Jacques Tower in the 4th arrondissement. The tower is all that remains of a church that was destroyed in the French Revolution, and is in the Flamboyant Gothic style. Whilst I didn’t go inside (it was closed and I had little time) I enjoyed seeing this tower. I’ve seen a number of interesting French and Belgium belfries as part of the Belfry WHS, and I reckon this one ranks with the best of them. After seeing the tower I continued to the cathedral of Notre Dame, which is part of the Paris, Banks of the Seine WHS.